The Existence of Muhammadiyah in Between Indonesia and Malaysia Diplomatic Relations

Since the beginning of independence, diplomatic relations between Indonesia and its neighbor, Malaysia, have experienced ups and downs. For example, the Indonesia-Malaysia confrontation occurred in 1963-1966 due to President Soekarno’s rejection of the formation of Malaysia, which was considered a ‘puppet state’—an extension of the new colonialism. In contrast to Suharto’s leadership, which tried to fix the tenuous relationship between the two countries.

Until now, relations between Indonesia and Malaysia have tended to improve, even when Anwar Ibrahim was elected as the new Prime Minister of Malaysia in 2022—Joko Widodo as President of Indonesia congratulated him. At the same time, Joko Widodo hopes that the bilateral relations that have been built between Indonesia and Malaysia are getting stronger from all aspects including the economy, resolving border issues, and benefiting citizens—considering that Malaysia is the largest recipient country of Indonesian migrant workers.

As for supporting good relations between Indonesia and Malaysia, the actors involved are certainly not only from the state or government. In international relations, some non-state actors contribute to influencing the dynamics of relations between countries. One of them is the existence of NGOs (Non-governmental Organizations). In this case, the existence of Muhammadiyah branches abroad. Muhammadiyah is one of the largest Islamic NGOs in Indonesia which is very independent with its efforts focused on education, health, and fundraising. Who would have thought that the Muhammadiyah movement, which is now spread abroad through its special branches and diaspora, would also contribute to strengthening Indonesia-Malaysia relations?

Muhammadiyah with its PCIM (Head of the Special Branch of Muhammadiyah) in Malaysia has succeeded in establishing a university namely UMAM (Universiti Muhammadiyah Malaysia) in 2021 with a location in Perlis, after obtaining permission from the Malaysian government through the Viceroy of Perlis, Tuanku Syed Fauzuddin Putra Jamalullail with the Council of Islamic and Malay Customs. The permit for the establishment of UMAM is registered with the number JPT/BPP(U)/1000-801/172 jld (6) which confirms that the institute officially becomes a private university in which there are 15 study programs with a capacity of around 150-200 students per year.

From there, it can be said that UMAM is Muhammadiyah’s first university abroad and can even be said to be the only Indonesian university abroad. The establishment of UMAM has a great opportunity to become a link in bilateral relations between Indonesia and Malaysia in the field of education because the university can accommodate intellectuals from across countries to mutually contribute to their work. In addition, considering that Indonesia and Malaysia are ‘role models’ for Muslim-majority countries in Southeast Asia, the presence of UMAM should be a hope for education to instill moderate and progressive Islamic values—just as Muhammadiyah holds Progressive Islam as its slogan.

Then what is no less important, in connection with the field of peace, on 15-16 July 2023 PCIM Malaysia participated in the IIPC (International Interfaith Peace Conference) which took place in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. This event aims to promote harmony between religious believers in Malaysia. The forum was attended by many influential Islamic NGOs in Malaysia, including PCIM, all of which shared the message of Islam as Rahmatan lil Alamin (universal religion). PCIM Malaysia in the IIPC forum has a role in drafting the resolution that was agreed upon at the end of the program. In this way, it can be seen that PCIM Malaysia has a great opportunity to expand its influence in spreading peace through inter-religious dialogue and universalizing human values. On the one hand, the contribution of the Muhammadiyah branch in Malaysia indirectly represents Indonesia’s commitment to supporting interfaith peace and is a continuation of the struggle of the R20 forum to make religion a pillar of peace.

Muhammadiyah through PCIM is truly concerned about the issue of peace amidst the widespread phenomenon of Islamophobia globally which not only has an impact on endangering Muslim minorities in Western countries but also demeans the dignity of Muslim communities throughout the world. On the other hand, there are bad labels about Islam due to acts of terrorism and extremism which are a big problem for Muslims, especially in this case Muhammadiyah which always tries to promote moderate teachings. Therefore, it is appropriate for the IIPC forum to become a step for Muhammadiyah—through their PCIM—to strengthen Islamic values of non-violence, tolerance, and inclusion.

Then, not only in the fields of education or peace, PCIM Malaysia also develops member empowerment to form an economic ecosystem among the Muhammadiyah diaspora in Malaysia. According to information from the Secretary of PCIM Malaysia, Sulton Kamal, there are around 1,000-3,000 PCIM Malaysia members—some of whom come from migrant workers. The introduction of Soto Lamongan as a typical Indonesian culinary dish by Muhammadiyah migrants has been going on since 2020 and has experienced quite significant developments in forming the community’s economic ecosystem. It is known that every Soto Lamongan food sold per day can reach 1,000 ringgit or around 215,52 USD. It is not surprising that the sale of these foods has received a positive response from the Embassy of the Republic of Indonesia in Kuala Lumpur, apart from providing benefits from an economic perspective, on the other hand, it is also a momentum to promote Indonesian cultural values through Soto Lamongan culinary.

From these examples, it can be seen how the global Muhammadiyah movement has the potential to become a non-state actor that carries out an important instrument for Indonesia’s diplomatic relations with Malaysia. Even though Muhammadiyah’s resources are running optimally, of course, the synergy between the Indonesian government and Muhammadiyah organizations must be further strengthened. Because the two of them are like a symbiotic mutualism that needs and benefits each other.

M. S. Al Ayyubi
M. S. Al Ayyubi
Muhammad Shalahuddin Al Ayyubi, graduated from International Relations at the Islamic University of Indonesia.